Rudyard Kipling: a kaiju interpretation

I recently went on a writing retreat and made some amazing new friends. Since we spent all week being good and working so hard on our projects, we decided a reward was in order.  The reward was to head into town on our last day and see the premiere of Godzilla.

I loved Godzilla. I loved it exactly for what it was, in all its cheesy glory.  I’m pretty certain the entire movie was designed around the delayed Godzilla reveal, pregnant with self-congratulated awesomeness.  I did an actual double-fistpump in my seat at the atomic breath reveal (I am an adult, I promise). After, I got an influx of texts over the weekend from friends who’d seen it and wanted me to know they didn’t like it.  Knowing how pumped I was, and knowing I was at a writing retreat and perhaps thinking I had not yet seen it, I guess they wanted to hedge my expectations.

Put aside for the moment that I’m a kaiju groupie. How can you not find joy in this movie?  How can you not love a scene where the guy who’s Geiger Counter reads zero in a deadly nuclear quarantine zone decides that’s proof enough to take off his protective gear?  (Surely he replaced the batteries beforehand.)  How can you not chuckle at the multitude of times that children (and one dog) were used as heralds of danger for sheer ham-fisted emotional manipulation?  (PS They’re all fine.) How can you not turn off common sense while an Explosive Ordnance Disposal lieutenant hopscotches onto every single other military operation whether he is qualified or not (restricted Navy transport; jury-rigging a nuclear warhead on a moving train; the oft advertised HALO jump) hitchhiking through the plot to reach his goal?  How can you not dream of a primordial time when the world was “more nuclear” and all these shitkicker kaiju existed en masse?

Yes, it has definite cheese appeal. Yes, it has flaws. But Godzilla is an awesome movie, a classic tale, and at the brewpub afterwards I finally recognized why I loved it so so much:

Godzilla is a shot-for-shot remake of the Rudyard Kipling classic “Rikki-Tikki Tavi.”


Let’s compare.

Rikki-Tikki Tavi is the story of a little mongoose who finds his way into the house of an English family living in India.  It’s a tale of incidental heroism by virtue of one acting quite unassumingly on one’s nature.  Rikki’s main antagonists are Nag and Nagaina, cobras who have terrorized the other animals of the garden and are threatening to hatch even more cobras.  Everyone is afraid of them.

Even Rikki, at first.  When he is introduced to the male cobra, Nag tries intimidating him as he does the other animals, telling Rikki to “look [upon him], and be afraid.”

Until Kipling drops this badass bomb on us: “[Rikki-Tikki] was afraid for the minute; but it is impossible for a mongoose to stay frightened for any length of time … and he knew that all a grown mongoose’s business in life was to fight and eat snakes.”

Let’s take a minute to consider the mongoose.  A mongoose is an underwhelming weird little ferret-looking thing.  And yet its sole purpose on this earth is to hunt one of the most awesomely terrifying and mesmerizing animals known to us: snakes.  Snakes can be big, are quite fast, and sometimes poisonous.  If you were faced with a snake twice your size that could loom up to thrice your height and bite you with a venom-laced mouth at the speed of a whipcrack, what would you do?  Run? Cry? (I’d cry.) The mongoose would see it as lunch.  The mongoose has no fear of it.  The mongoose simply knows that’s its job.

The snake, quite unfairly, has been a representation of evil throughout literature.  Though not as prevalent, one could assume the mongoose, subtextually, represents the benevolent side of nature by virtue of being a snake’s mortal enemy, though without any inherent benevolence of his own.

Sidebar: In the show Hannibal, protagonist Will Graham is a special-utilized crime scene investigator. Preoccupied with the notion that people are manipulating him, he is at times described as “a broken pony” and “a fragile teacup”… but when he asks new acquaintance Hannibal Lecter–who is himself preoccupied with Will Graham’s internal makeup–“how do you see me?” Hannibal demonstrates his faith in Will’s ability by replying: “the mongoose I want under the house when the snakes slither by.”

There is something about a mongoose that represents safety.  Not in the sense of any moral framework, but by the very nature of a mongoose being a mongoose.  He doesn’t wish us harm, but he also doesn’t care about us.  He does his own thing, and in doing so, we reap collateral rewards.

800px-Dwarf_mongoose_Korkeasaari_zoo“A god, for all intents and purposes.” –Godzilla (2014)

Back to Rikki’s tale: now, it isn’t just Nag that Rikki has to contend with.  There is also Nagaina, the female, “Nag’s wicked wife.”  Nagaina is the more deadly of the cobras.  She is the dominant one, and utterly without scruples.  She sends her husband Nag to kill the Englishman, and when that fails, she makes to kill the small child Teddy herself in front of his parents.

But here’s the thing about Nag and Nagaina: they are actually sympathetic villains.  Their one driving desire is to make a home for their unhatched eggs.  Their goal is to have a family together.  Since they are cobras, they rightfully know that the humans are a threat to their babies, and Rikki-Tikki is an even greater threat.  Their plan to kill the humans is a means to give Rikki no further reason to stay, in hopes that the garden will be left to them in peace.

There are two sides to every conflict in nature, divorced of right and wrong, with survival and consequence riding on each side.  Nature can be brutal yet is inherently neutral.  We root against Nag and Nagaina because we are bonded to Rikki and his boy Teddy, but that does not mean we can’t understand the plight of the cobras. (“Do you think it is right for you to eat fledglings out of a nest?” asks Rikki. “You eat eggs. Why should not I eat birds?” responds Nag.)

The primary conflict in Godzilla is framed in much the same way.  Awakened from hibernation by a massive cave-in caused by excavators, the MUTO (massive unidentified terrestrial organism) incubates and then hatches into a kaiju which looks like a cross between a Xenomorph and a Graboid and a giant pterodactyl.


It takes up residence in Japan before it is fully fledged.  Humans track this MUTO’s echolocation calls to a second signal, which they initially interpret is Godzilla calling him out for a fight.  But the second signal is revealed to be that of an even larger, more dangerous MUTO waking up in the Nevada desert.  This one is twice as big, and is a grounded animal in contrast to the first MUTO’s ability to fly.  The scientists conclude that MUTO must be a sexually dimorphic species, and the larger one is female.

The male MUTO races across the Pacific with the goal of mating with this female, and Godzilla finally appears to track it and the “scientists” conjecture that either Godzilla’s some sort of ancient god intent on destroying these MUTO to balance out the lifestream, or far more likely, it is his instinct to hunt them. (Sound familiar?)

And though we are supposed to be terrified of these MUTO, there is a scene where the male and female finally meet, and it is actually quite tender.  They approach each other eagerly and nuzzle their beaks in affection, and the male gives the female his mating gift (which in this case is a live nuclear warhead).  I’m sure there are whole swatches of the internet where you can find people who went “aww” at that part.  It illustrated that they’re not just destructive claw-and-stomp monsters:  they’re animals.

Even visually, the kaiju seem designed to pay homage to the source material.  The MUTO are quite alien and serpentine in their design.


Whereas Godzilla is a more familiar shape to us.  And kind of chubby and cuddly.


Pictured: primordial mongoose

The plots even follow the same basic chain of events: Godzilla/Rikki fights the male MUTO/Nag and destroys him first; the MUTO/cobra nest is then destroyed before it can hatch, which ignites the wrath of the more dangerous female MUTO/Nagaina, which escalates into an even more dangerous confrontation.  Godzilla/Rikki succeeds, and both are feared dead from their injuries.  But they recover, and go on with their lives much as is expected: Godzilla returns to the sea; Rikki-Tikki spends his days as Teddy’s companion.  Both receive accolades that they have restored nature to its rightful balance, though it doesn’t seem that either of them cares at all what others think of the outcome.  They were both merely following their instincts in the order of things.

And here’s the thing about both Rikki-Tikki and Godzilla: everyone around them knows they are fighting a great war.  Everyone around them is aware of the stakes.  But Rikki-Tikki and Godzilla only don this role of savior by virtue of the perception of others.  It goes beyond modesty; Rikki-Tikki and Godzilla are creatures that have no nobler concept than doing what they were born to do, and in doing so, give the illusion that they are bringing balance to a world never quite knocked out of balance to begin with.

“The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in their control, and not the other way around.”

  –Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) in Godzilla (2014)


Odyssey Announces 2014 Workshop

We continue to get pummeled by winter storms here.  I’m ready to toss up the white flag and cry ‘Uncle.’  Summer can’t come soon enough.

PS You know what happens in summer, right?  Writing workshops!

Below is the official announcement for this year’s Odyssey Writing Workshop.  Start filling out your applications!


About Odyssey
Odyssey is one of the most highly respected workshops for writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Each year, adult writers from all over the world apply. Only fifteen are admitted. Odyssey is for developing writers whose work is approaching publication quality and for published writers who want to improve their work. The six-week program combines an advanced curriculum with extensive writing and in-depth feedback on student manuscripts. Top authors, editors, and agents have served as guest lecturers, including George R. R. Martin, Harlan Ellison, Jane Yolen, Terry Brooks, Robert J. Sawyer, Ben Bova, Nancy Kress, Elizabeth Hand, Jeff VanderMeer, Donald Maass, Sheila Williams, Carrie Vaughn, and Dan Simmons. Fifty-eight percent of Odyssey graduates go on to professional publication.

This summer’s workshop runs from JUNE 9 to JULY 18, 2014. Class meets for at least four hours each morning, five days a week. Odyssey class time is split between workshopping sessions and lectures. While feedback reveals the weaknesses in students’ manuscripts, lectures teach the tools and techniques necessary to strengthen them. Intensive, detailed lectures cover the elements of fiction writing in depth. Students spend about eight hours more per day writing and critiquing each other’s work.

The program is held on Saint Anselm College’s beautiful campus in Manchester, NH. Saint Anselm is one of the finest small liberal arts colleges in the country, and its campus provides a peaceful setting and state-of-the-art facilities for Odyssey students. College credit is available upon request.

The early action application deadline is JANUARY 31, and the regular admission deadline is APRIL 8. Tuition is $1,965, and housing in campus apartments is $812 for a double room in a campus apartment and $1,624 for a single room.

This year, Odyssey graduate Sara King is sponsoring the Parasite Publications Character Awards to provide financial assistance to three character-based writers wishing to attend. The Parasite Publications Character Awards, three scholarships in the amounts of $1,965 (full tuition), $500, and $300, will be awarded to the three members of the incoming class who are deemed extraordinarily strong character writers, creating powerful, emotional characters that grab the reader and don’t let go. Several other scholarships and a work/study position are also available.

Jeanne Cavelos, Odyssey’s director and primary instructor, is a best-selling author and a former senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing, where she won the World Fantasy Award for her work. As an editor, Cavelos gained a reputation for discovering and nurturing new writers. She provides students with detailed, concrete, constructive critiques of their work. They average over 1,500 words, and her handwritten line edits on manuscripts are extensive. Cavelos said, “I also meet individually with students several time over the course of the six weeks. We discuss the student’s writing process and his strengths and weaknesses, and then explore ways in which his writing process might be altered to improve his weak areas. These discussions often lead to breakthrough realizations and new strategies.”

Meet Our 2014 Writers-in-Residence
Melanie Tem’s work has received the Bram Stoker, International Horror Guild, British Fantasy, and World Fantasy Awards. She has published numerous short stories, eleven solo novels, two collaborative novels with Nancy Holder, and two with her husband Steve. She is also a published poet, an oral storyteller, and a playwright. Steve Rasnic Tem is widely considered one of the top short story writers working today. He is the author of over 400 published short stories and winner of the Bram Stoker, International Horror Guild, British Fantasy, and World Fantasy Awards. He has had numerous short story collections published as well as six novels. Melanie and Steve served as writers-in-residence at Odyssey 2005, and the result was an amazing, insight-filled week that the class still talks about to this day. They are amazing teachers and mentors.

Other Guest Lecturers
Lecturers for the 2014 workshop include some of the best teachers in the field: authors Elizabeth Hand, Catherynne M. Valente, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, and Alexander Jablokov; and editor Gordon Van Gelder.

Odyssey Graduates
Graduates of the Odyssey Writing Workshop have been published in the top fiction magazines and by the top book publishers in the field. Their stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Asimov’s, Weird Tales, Lightspeed, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Clarkesworld. Some recent novels published by Odyssey graduates are Kitty in the Underworld by Carrie Vaughn, published by Tor Books; Elisha Barber by E. C. Ambrose, published by DAW; Shadowlark by Meagan Spooner, from Carolrhoda Books; Tarnished by Rhiannon Held, from Tor Books; and Sharp: A Mindspace Investigations Novel by Alex Hughes, published by Roc Books.

Comments from the Class of 2013
“There are so many courses that pass around the same rules of writing. At Odyssey, I learned far more than I thought there ever could be to know, in greater depth and detail than I thought possible. Odyssey has transformed how I view the act of writing, and how I view myself as a writer and a person.”
–Sofie Bird

“You hear the term ‘life-changing experience’ tossed around a lot, and usually it doesn’t mean much. Usually, it’s a marketing cliché. But with Odyssey, I can’t think of a more accurate descriptor. My life has been changed. Amazing course, amazing lectures, amazing classmates, and an amazing instructor–I’ll never forget my time here.”
–J. W. Alden

Other Odyssey Resources and Services
The Odyssey Web site,, offers many resources for writers, including online classes, a critique service, free podcasts, writing and publishing tips, and a monthly blog. Those interested in applying to the workshop should visit the site or e-mail

Hollywood’s Wonder Woman

I love Wonder Woman.
I love seeing a groundswell of chatter about Wonder Woman.
I think Gal Gadot is a fine casting choice.

She struck a chord with me in the Fast & Furiouses, and she’s certainly got the chops to pull off the Wonder Woman swagger. I had the “she’s not brawny enough” reaction at first, too.  (For the character’s sake, also out of a desire to see more body shapes represented in visual fiction.)  But criticizing the skinniness of an actress is a type of body shaming, and it isn’t for me to body shame anyone.

Anyway, the dysmorphic Hollywood machine will no doubt sculpt Gadot for the role, as they have done so many times before.

Seeing as I’ve been inundated with it today, it makes me angry when people discuss Gadot’s “sex appeal” or “lack thereof” (I mean come on, it’s Wonder Woman, why is that your priority?) or her “ability to fight” as though we held male actors to the same scrutiny upon a casting announcement.  Irrelevant though it may be, the latter point is more than a little unfounded: Gadot served in the Israeli Defense Forces.  But she’s playing a fictional character, not herself.  Hollywood has its stunt masters to train her for cinematic fighting, just as they do for Cavill and Affleck.  It’s a non-issue.

And now to the meat of sandwich: I don’t see why everyone is so consumed with Wonder Woman’s casting when we don’t even know how large or small a part she’ll have. But I’m pretty sure that, to whatever extent, Wonder Woman will be used as a second-billing/cameo/romantic pursuit in this next Snyder slugfest.

Wonder Woman has never had her own movie.  The “Big Three” and the “Trinity” are misnomers when applied to cinema.  She’s never even appeared a live action feature.

And as for her debut on the big screen … well, we’ll just have to wait and see.

I hope one day she’ll get her own summer blockbuster.  I pray to god Zack Snyder has nothing to do with it, nor with any female-led script ever again.  I have no faith in Snyder’s ability, let alone to spearhead DC’s biggest onscreen team-up.  He’s just not … good. His scripts are clumsy, and he relies too heavily on cold palettes and gimmicky camerawork.

The final kicker here? If Snyder wanted so damn bad to have a superhero snap necks to get shit done, instead of ruining Superman’s no-kill integrity all he had to do was wait a movie. That was Wonder Woman’s play, in the comics … to save Superman’s fool life.

The God of Thunder

This is part of a blog-hop in celebration of the release of FATE FORGOTTEN, Amalia Dillin’s latest novel.


You would expect me to be a big Thor fan.  I’m a comics reader, after all. And I love me some Superman (a brave strongman) and Wonder Woman (a military strategist straight out of mythology), two archetypal heroes who struggle with the “otherness” of godhood status among the rank-and-file humans.  Thor seems to fall right in the middle of those two.

But truthfully? For the longest time I was pretty ignorant of the God of Thunder.  I didn’t read many Marvel comics or watch the old cartoons, outside of the iconic 90s X-Men, so I really didn’t know what to think of the Asgardian, outside of Chris Hemsworth with his passing Scandinavian looks and Aussie charm.  What’s a DC girl to do?

I sought out the help of my friend Jake Murray, who’s as knowledgeable about the Marvel-verse as anyone I know, to help me better understand why Thor is awesome.

As a Superman fan, one of the facts I’m resigned to is that Big Blue just isn’t very popular these days.  His personality often feels stuck in the past with a 3-pack-a-day 40’s radio personality narrating his exploits. He’s relatively uncomplicated, the morally black-and-white Boy Scout whose sense of justice often reaches only as far as his fists.  And let’s be honest, the reboot attempts haven’t done him any favors.  He’s an alien space god living among us, and he’ll never be Batman. Okay, okay. we get it.

Yet Thor is an alien space god, and much beloved.  What gives?  Where does this love come from?

“Thor is more engaging than Superman in a variety of ways,” says Jake.  “While his flaws make him endearing, Thor is also a blowhard who enjoys fighting and battle in all of its forms. Even when life itself is on the line, Thor meets the danger with a grin and a boisterous comment. His penchant for outmoded English phrasing and sheer bravado serve only to enhance the image of a God without fear. Yet, he DOES know fear, for his friends and family who might become endangered and for those less resilient than himself, such as the people of Earth.”

Thor has a personality as big as his biceps, that’s certainly true.  But Supes also doesn’t want the people of Earth to get hurt. So, aside from the feathered helmet, where’s the distinction?

“Thor is constantly the member of the Avengers who is designated for protecting bystanders during any major battle.”

Hm, interesting. Putting one of the heavy hitters on defense and crowd control, that’s not something you see Superman often doing.  Go on…

“The most interesting difference though, is that Thor’s threats are never empty. If the God of Thunder decides that any means necessary must be used he will use them, quite often to devastating effect. Thor has even been the end of other members of the Avengers (like The Sentry).”

Now that sounds like Wonder Woman.

Tactically, Superman is the equivalent of a bare-knuckle boxer. But Wonder Woman is a military strategist, a field general. Wonder Woman knows when to show compassion, and she knows when to crush an enemy.  When a rampaging Superman was being controlled by the turncoat telepath Max Lord and Wonder Woman used her lasso of truth on him, Max was compelled to tell her “The only way to stop him is to kill me.”  So she looked Max in the eye, and snapped his neck. Out of all the DC’s Big Three, Wonder Woman can do what needs to be done.

Okay, I’m starting to see some aspects come together for why Thor is such a great hero. He’s got the solid mythology background and all the magical powers that come with that status; he’s rambunctious and loud, commanding the attention of a room.  And he’s more than just the “team strongman” in comics.  I’m convinced he’s got the appeal for fans of both Superman and Wonder Woman. But what about the biggest DC rival, the last of the Big Three: Gotham’s dark knight?

Well, for this, I can see even Batman turn a bit green with envy.  Because Thor’s got some toys of his own.

“Mjolnir is a weapon that only he can wield,” says Jake, “allowing him to drop it on even Superman and pin him to the floor until such time as Thor decides to call Mjolnir back.”

This reason, I like it. Another!

“Thor also has control over lighting and storms which makes him far better suited to large scale engagements than most other strongmen,” Jake adds.  “Between his lightning magic and Mjolnir he has significantly more ranged capability than many bruiser types, as well as significantly more battle experience and tactical learning.”

So in a fight, Thor seems pretty well rounded.

But a character has to be someone readers can relate to.  The draw of many Marvel heroes, as opposed to DC heroes, is the accessibility of the characters: weaknesses, struggles with daily life, and a lack of acceptance from the general populace.  Thor, as an alien space god with an omnipotent weapon, seems to buck that trend.  What gives?

“Thor might buck the trend on first glance, but upon examination, you come to see that he is as flawed, perhaps MORE so than many other Marvel heroes. While his enmity with his brother Loki is well documented, less so are the conflicts he has had with many other Asgardians, such as Amora the Enchantress [and her bodyguard Skurge the Executioner] and his father Odin.

“Thor’s strained relationship with his father and his extreme egotism are the reason for his banishment to Midgard to begin with, and though Thor has reigned in his overweening pride somewhat, he remains boisterous, oft times a braggart, and at times extremely violent. Even his short time as King of Asgard is marred by the fact that it ended with that land shattered and its inhabitants banished to Midgard within mortal bodies.”

And so Thor, for all of his sheer awesomeness, must struggle with one of the most classic of character flaws.  In his case, pride quite literally goes before a fall.  For despite all his powers and his prowess, Thor had to overcome obstacles that he himself created.  One of my first associations with Thor is Anthony Hopkins as Odin, scolding him as “a vain, greedy, cruel boy” before stripping him of all his gifts.  Only through redemption, through maturity and compassion, only through growing his inner strength could he earn back his outer strength.

As Jake says, “Many of his story lines are very human and real, making him extremely relatable, despite his Godhood.”

Making amends for our past mistakes is something we can all relate to.


I asked Jake a few other questions.

How were you first introduced to the character? 

The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes Cartoon and the movie Thor.

What was your favorite story arc of his?

Probably the Casket of Ancient Winters and his battle with Malekith the Accursed to save Midgard and the Nine Realms from Eternal Winter back in 1984.

Pretend you had been put in charge of the upcoming Thor movie and given carte blanche to make whatever you wanted.  What would you do with it?

I would have used Amora the Enchantress and Skurge the Executioner as villains, allowing Amora (who has been trying to bed Thor since the sixties) to kidnap Jane Foster and force Thor to have to battle not only Skurge, but Amora’s magical traps and enchantments to reach her and save the day.


Find more of the #ThorLove BlogHop here, running from 11/5-11/8, and be sure to check out the new Thor movie, as well as Amalia Dillin’s new book from World Weaver Press!

New story out

I’m pleased to announce my story “Pallbearer” is included in Gaia’s Misfits (A Fantasy Anthology) Volume 1, available now.  It’s about a funeral-crashing exiled knight, and might take the cake for bleakest story in this adventure anthology.

State of the Hildey: midyear edition

Poor neglected blog. Meanwhile, things have happened.

First up, my story “Jack Magic” was published in the summer issue of Kaleidotrope.  It’s about spiky-haired sea pirates and magic cats and crazy quests.

I’m a couple weeks back from The Never-Ending Odyssey, an 8-day alumni workshop for graduates of the Odyssey Writing Workshop.  It was a fantastic, incomparable experience, as always. Old friends. New friends. At least one crazy caper. I’ve come away with a supercharged novel critique group, some great fixes for the opening chapters of the novel, and a game plan for what I thought was an unfixable short story.

Speaking of the novel rewrite, we’re chugging right along through the beginning of Act 2. Progress!  As I look ahead to the chapters to come, I’m astonished at the difference between those and the freshly revised ones in my wake.  More than anything, the biggest changes have been to vary and enrich the homogenous, minimalist worldbuilding of the previous draft.  The feedback tells me it’s working.  Biggest obstacle with this is to keep it from hijacking the plot, but so far, it seems to be helping. But we are our own worst judges.

So, fingers crossed, but things are good.

Since the last time I was on here was to provide a golf-clap for Man of Steel, I thought I’d mention I found the best movie of the summer, possibly ever: PACIFIC RIM!  No reviews, as the internet already has those aplenty. It isn’t perfect, but I’m so desperately in love with it. I grew up starry-eyed on robot lions and zords and Gundam suits, so it was the mecha aspect, more than the kaiju, that drew me to the movie. I can’t keep going. I’ll start gushing. I hope you saw it.

And if you’re a comics fan, you should be reading LAZARUS by Greg Rucka, who has reunited with Gotham Central artist Michael Lark for a sci fi near-future thriller about genetic enhancements and wealth-based economic oligarchy.  Give me this and give me SAGA, and I’ll never go hungry for a good comic.

Fall is right around the corner.  Apple cider. Seasonally appropriate stout. Crisp air. Hoodies. Football. And pumpkin-flavored EVERYTHING.

Still, I will be sad to see summer go.  I haven’t even had a chance to eat Maryland crabs yet. Better get on that.

My spoileriffic Man of Steel review

Spoilers ahead. There be spoilers ahead.

I’ve been looking forward to this movie for a year. I am a huge Superman fan. Not even so much a fan of his comics (his supporting payers tend to grate on me; I prefer him in ensemble casts) but of who he is, what he stands for.  I may be one of the five people on the planet who could take or leave the old Christopher Reeves movies.  So I was never married to the originals, and was more than ready to embrace something new.

If you haven’t seen it, don’t read another stinking word. Go see it for yourself! Read more of this post

Writers, who do you hate?

Recently, my good professorial friend invited me to speak to her English comp classes at the University of Delaware.

I visited three classes in rapid succession, each in a different building on this pretty campus, and as we walked from building to building, my friend and I brainstormed some ways to fine-tune the class time, and we decided that since a Q&A seemed to work best, we’d devote the bulk of the final class to that.  There were a lot of good questions of the flavor I’d been expecting, stuff like “where do you get your ideas” and “how do you get out of writer’s block” and “how do you find time to write,” etc. etc.  By the time we reached the last class, I was feeling almost like an old hand at the game.

So in the last class, I had a few back-and-forths with the students and started to gauge the pulse of the room.  Smooth sailing.  One student asked me to name an author I loved, and I went on a little about Rudyard Kipling.  Then, right after that, a guy nearly stumped me with a question I’d never expected: “what author do you hate?”

What did he mean by “hate”?  As in, professional jealousy?  We’d just covered the fact that writing isn’t the best way to make money, so is he referring to more successful writers?  While I stalled to think, I figured I’d troll the room.  I’d guessed from the discussion that a lot of them enjoyed Stephanie Meyer, so I gently joked about her a little. (I don’t think it went over well.)

My real answer was this: I don’t hate anybody.  I don’t think “hating” writers, or their work, is germane to my own work or to a discussion about writing as a whole. There are authors out there with huge visibility, who get lambasted with criticism over the quality of their work, but that’s the nature of the beast.  With more exposure comes more fans and also more criticism.  But that doesn’t make an author any less successful, and I applaud anyone who reaches that kind of success.  I’m not in this as a race against anybody; I’m only racing myself and a ticking clock.  I don’t believe in nursing hatred, or in fanning jealousy, or any other pitiable, self-absorbed behavior.  I believe in celebrating someone’s success, in fostering community, and in taking inspiration from someone else’s triumphs to make myself work all that much harder.

I hoped that answered his question with some semblance of grace.

And then I somehow launched into this diatribe about predatory contracts and told them the story of that time James Frey went shelling out his shitty sharkish deals to unsuspecting MFA students.

But after some reflection, I think the student who posed the question probably just meant whose work don’t I like reading.  To answer that, I’m not really sure.  If I don’t like reading somebody’s work, I just don’t read it.  This equitable practice makes for a less grumpy Hildey.

(There was that one time I slogged through 50 Shades of Grey, but that’s another story…)

Roger Ebert passed away yesterday after a battle with cancer.  Salon reprinted an article of his; it is cogent and beautiful, and like many reflections on the nature of death, is one of those bright flashes that lets you achieve mental escape velocity from the daily grind, if only for just a moment.  Read it here.

Get to the roof

I have one writing goal today, and it’s this: get to the roof.

My passion project, my baby, is this big fantasy novel that has emerged for another round of revisions.  It’s one of those projects best left to ferment in the depths for a while, like kimchi in pots, before it comes out for another fix. (Fingers crossed, it’ll be marketable after this.)  Digging up my “get to it later” notes from the last round of revisions, past-me left instructions that the first dozen or so chapters were so thoroughly broken that the opening needed to be rewritten entirely, which is what I’ve been doing lately.

The chapters are getting longer, new characters are finagling their way into bigger speaking roles, but I’m still on course, and parts of the old opening still echo here in the new one.  It can’t change too much, after all, else I’ll never make it back to the original plot.  In the current chapter, our protagonist is in a warehouse where she shouldn’t be, and is about to be chased out by some nasty folk, only to run into unexpected captors at the end of the chapter.  Originally, this chapter ended on a roof.  Now, it ends inside the warehouse.  At the end of my editing session I let out a breath and declared it done and new.

But after some thought and reading ahead to later events, it makes more sense for her to be on the roof.

It’s not that big a change; it means pushing the physical advancement a little farther, which will add a few more paragraphs and move the scene.  Elsewhere the chapter will have to slim down to make room for it, but it’s doable.  She can make it to the roof.

Without goals, nothing would ever get done here.  Goals are the one thing that can guilt me into action.  That, and the inexorable march of death, but that’s way too depressing and not as concrete as an attainable goal schedule.  After all, why have goals if you can’t make them?  You’d just be setting yourself up for failure, and you’re not a very good friend to yourself if that’s your aim.

I don’t work too well with time goals.  Some writers can aim for an hour, two hours, three hours per day and whatever productivity arises from that scheduling is what they’re left with at the end of the day.  This works for some people.  This is also a great way to see just how much time you can carve out of the day for your writing.  I.e., you claim you’re “too busy” but if you can find 20 minutes a day, 15 even, in which to pound the keys, you can still produce content.  Again, this is great for some writers, but not for me.  I’m too good at distracting myself from the task at hand with Internet, ah, “research” and I’m too good at convincing myself it counts.

Production goals, on the other hand, that’s where it’s at.  I shoot for 600 words most days, and 1000 when I’m feeling pretty good about the project.  The earlier in the day I’m able to start, the better my chances of making the goal.  I like the 1k days, because I find that I usually hit a wall around the 650-700 point, and if I can push through, I’ll go well past 1k.

But some days, there’s one specific thing I want to get done.  Something that story advancement hinges on.  It’s not a blanket production goal; it’s a plot goal.  Like making it to a game’s save point.  No matter how close or how far you are from a certain plot point, you make that plot point your finish line, no matter what.  Let’s say you are trying to get character from Point A to the castle.  You won’t rest for the day until you hit that save point in your story.  So you start typing, and instinctively realize that the road is too boring and quiet, so you have to interject a monster or some other obstacle.  Maybe the bridge gives out and your character gets stuck in the moat and discovers a brigade of toad people have taken over the castle whereas before they thought everything was fine.  You keep pushing them towards the castle until either A) they make it, or B) the story dictates a change in character goal (i.e., infiltrate the toad people).

The best thing about plot goals is the “no matter what.”  You’re committed to advancing the plot as far as that, no matter what.  You might end up writing an extra 2k more than you expected; you might discover that that plot goal wasn’t even the right plot goal, and veer accordingly.  Once you have scaled the day’s mountain, you can catch your breath at the summit and reevaluate your course.  And sometimes you might not make it.  But that’s okay! Because you tried, and wherever you get to is still further than from where you started.

Rewind: The DC Comics Reboot

(This is an article I published on my old blog in 2011, when DC Comics switched to their New 52 format.)

It started with a delay.

Val and I were waiting for the release of Batwoman #1, a book that fans had been expecting for years. Batwoman, aka Kate Kane, is a crimefighter in Gotham City. She’s strong-willed and stubborn, great eclectic fashion sense, Jewish, formerly a cadet at the United States Military Academy who was forced to withdraw as a result of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Unable to serve her country because she is openly gay, she instead looked to the Bat symbol as a new banner under which to serve.

She’s a great character. She has depth.

She’s the reason Val and I started following comics together, and the root of our shared fandom. Our interest cemented when she had an outstanding run in Detective Comics, DC’s flagship title, which had a co-feature for another favorite of ours, the Question, Renee Montoya, a former Gotham detective and also Kate’s ex. Both features were written by Greg Rucka, a talented writer who deserves a lot of the credit for the development of both these characters. Kate’s storyline featured Captain Maggie Sawyer, formerly of Superman comics and the cop drama Gotham Central, a stage which she shared with Renee. Maggie played a critical role in Renee’s coming out storyline as she, too, is an openly gay character.

So, the news came that Kate was getting her own ongoing series. It was due for February of 2011. Then it was delayed because of artistic reasons. If you know the art I’m talking about, you know it’s well worth the wait. So it was pushed back to April 2011.

Meanwhile, my interest was gaining traction in other titles, most notably written by Gail Simone, a creator with a reputation for good storytelling and diverse representation. I started reading Secret Six, which featured two lesbian villains in a well-written, honest relationship. And truly, the entire cast was amazing. And the plots. And the interaction–villains as friends is such a fun trope. I swear, I have yet to find a storyline where they don’t all somehow end up in their underwear or pajamas, stabbing each other.

I also fell in love with Birds of Prey, a team of female superheroes, and started devouring back-issues. Also written by Simone, Chuck Dixon, and others, this long-running title received, at times, some flak for its artwork, but the stories? The stories of friendship between these women are unparalleled, and the individual character development is amazing. Renee Montoya was also featured here, near the end of the series.

So in a medium known for straight white male characters, as far as representation (characters like us, and those we related to) went, we had it pretty good.

This is where I was reconnected with a character I knew only in childhood from cartoons. She is my favorite, the one: Barbara Gordon, aka Oracle. Babs uses a wheelchair as a result of being shot in the spine by the Joker, and through decades of stories she has emerged as one of the best heroines of any medium, ever. She is super-intelligent, ambitious, driven. She quietly, secretly, built an extended information network and an empire that spanned the techno-globe. She is one of the matriarchs of the DC universe, and by popular vote the most kick-ass woman in DC comics.

She also was best friends with Dinah Lance, aka Black Canary. They were partners, they were friends. They loved each other. It was a deep and heartfelt and meaningful relationship, as right and true as anything Sam and Frodo ever had.

So I was content to wait for Batwoman while I immersed myself in these other collections.

Then April hit, and once again, all of us fans were looking forward to Batwoman #1. Only, it was delayed again. But this time they didn’t say why.

And then it became clear. DC had delayed the book because it was rebooting its entire line-up. Using the crossover event “Flashpoint” as an excuse to warp their space-time continuum, they were revamping some elements, continuing others, and trying to chase some elusive element to make them fresh and new, to appeal to new readers and broaden their demographic, and to cement their commitment to diversity.

Commitment to diversity. Remember that phrase. We’ll get back around to it.

They made this announcement but we had to wait to understand what it meant. Over the course of weeks, we would hear news as it was released and while I’m sure many people at DC smiled and patted themselves on the back, many fans felt their hearts sink.

Some of the major changes:

1. The Wildstorm imprint closed, and characters from titles such as The Authority were incorporated into the DCU.

2. Superman got an overhaul. They took him back to his beginning, where he’s an outsider, where he isn’t married to Lois Lane. Superman became a whiny bachelor. The Flash, his marriage dissolved too. Apparently a committed relationship isn’t exciting enough for some editors.

3. Barbara Gordon lost twenty years of life, was able to walk again, and became once again Batgirl. The shooting that paralyzed her will remain in continuity, but she spent three years “recovering” until a “miracle” allowed her to walk again. Her history with Birds of Prey never happened.

3a. This also meant that the Birds of Prey, the preeminent female team, fundamentally changed, and the relationship of Barbara and Dinah was erased.

3b. This also meant that the careers of Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown, the second and third Batgirls, were erased.

3c. Which means that the Batgirl book featuring Steph, written by Bryan Q. Miller, arguably one of the best books around, was done. This title, incidentally, featured Oracle helping guide the path of Wendy Harris, aka Proxy, another paraplegic hero.

3d. With Barbara walking again and Proxy gone, DC’s disabled superhero community fell away. This matters.

If you read no other link, read this article by Jill Pantozzi on why it matters.

4. Secret Six was cancelled.

5. Renee Montoya was no longer the Question. She was regressed to a police detective, and has disappeared from continuity. Maggie Sawyer was also demoted to detective, and inserted as Kate Kane’s love interest.

6. Wonder Woman, once again, hit the reset button.

7. But don’t worry, they didn’t touch Batman. He’s fine.

I suppose the inherent problem of these immense, interwoven, shared-universe story worlds is that they’re not infinitely sustainable. It needs to be shaken up from time to time, because some marketing executives think sensationalism is a good sell, and because it provides a clear starting point for new fans and new potential customers.

And yet I was left wondering: what about my heroes?

Because for me , it felt as though DC’s executives spot-targeted everything I loved, the characters that resonated with me, the passion I had as a fan. It was a blow. It was such a blow that I delayed writing this all summer of 2011, trying to figure out how to articulate just exactly how much this hurt.  In the end, I couldn’t. So I drew it instead:

You’re still remembered, Oracle.